Over the past several years, breathing has gained a lot of focus in the rehabilitation and health & wellness industries. How do you breathe? Shallow? Quick? Deep? Slow? There are a myriad of ways people breathe and, as such, multiple breathing patterns and names exist for each type. Today we’re going to highlight probably the two most common breathing patterns, how they differ, and how to quickly find out which type you’re doing.
Belly Breathing vs. Chest Breathing
These two types work exactly how they sound. Each pattern will be present in everyone depending upon your circumstances, stress level, exercise level, etc. But which type you are typically in is the real question and what we are going to delve into today.
Diaphragmatic Breathing AKA Belly Breathing
It uses the diaphragm, the muscle that separates the lungs and heart in your ribcage from all the other organs in your abdomen (see picture left). This muscle was specifically engineered for breathing. When the diaphragm contracts it flattens out, causing your belly to push out. The contraction of the diaphragm decreases the pressure inside our lungs compared to the air outside, causing air to rush in and fill the entire lungs as we inhale. As the diaphragm relaxes it helps us expel used air and carbon dioxide out of our lungs (see picture below).
Apical Breathing AKA Chest Breathing
This type of breathing is often very shallow and taxing in nature. During inhalation, most of the ribcage movement comes from the upper chest and shoulder regions. It is shallow because only the upper portion of the rib cage is expanding to decrease internal lung pressure allowing air to flow into only the upper half of the lungs. This is very taxing on the body as the muscles performing this type of breathing are not primary breathing muscles. These muscles (sternocleidomastoid, the trapezius, and the scalenes) were originally designed as secondary breathing muscles for fight or flight (i.e. running away from an attacking bear) type of situations only. Unfortunately, besides not allowing for a full breath to occur, apical breathing often causes excessive shoulder and neck tension. Ever had a sore neck when you’re stressed out? This is from breathing with your neck muscles instead of with your diaphragm.
Which Type of Breather Are You?
The simplest way to find this out is by laying on your back. Place your right hand over your belly, just below the belly button and your left hand on your chest just below your collar bones and just breath normally for a little bit. Which hand do you feel rising and falling more? If it’s your belly hand then you are a diaphragmatic breather, if it’s your chest hand you’re an apical breather. Or at least you are in this position. Honestly, you will likely breathe differently depending upon the position you are in and what activity you are doing. As a result, it’s a good idea to pay attention and test out what type of breather you are in a wide variety of positions. After breathing laying down, try it seated, standing up, balancing on one leg. How does your breathing change? If you are a deep diaphragmatic breather it will likely stay fairly stable, maybe becoming more apical as you balance on one leg. If you are an apical breather you will likely become even more apical the harder the positions get. Luckily, if you find yourself breathing more apically you can train your diaphragm to get working again.
Start by laying on your back. Breathe deep in your nose pushing into your belly hand raising it up as high as you can. Try to pay attention to how much the chest hand is moving, this should decrease and almost disappear as your diaphragm gets working again. Then let the breath out of your lips. Do this throughout the day, whenever you get a chance (I have most clients/patients do this as they fall asleep at night). Once you feel like you’ve mastered breathing laying down, move to seated and repeat the steps. Progress will be fast at first and get more challenging as you move to more demanding positions. Nevertheless, keep working at it.
There are several more tips and tricks to breathing re-education and if you feel like you just can’t get it down, let us know. Sometimes there are some pretty funky breathing patterns out there. Thankfully they are fixable, but may need a little more help from a trained professional. Stay tuned for our future posts…I’m going to continue to explore breathing over the next few weeks.
- Image 1: By Original work: Theresa KnottSt. Johann This vector image was created with Inkscape. (Derivative from Respiratory system.svg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsOriginal work: Theresa KnottSt. Johann This vector image was created with Inkscape. (Derivative from Respiratory system.svg) [CC BY-SA 3.0](https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
- Image 2: By The original uploader was Sunshineconnelly at English Wikibooks [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.